The Genetic Turn

Eric Schwitzgebel argues that, due to recent empirical results illuminating some “genetic” “sources” of our intuitions, we’re past the point where philosophers can innocently take their intuitions at face value. We cannot responsibly proceed, as we have done previously, without “careful empirical reflection on the source and trustworthiness of” our intuitions.

I pointed out that responsible inquiry generally requires us to be open to evidence of our own defects. We never could have “innocently” ignored such evidence. These interesting empirical results don’t make that general point more plausible; they only alert us to specific areas where we perhaps should be especially careful.

Can Schwitzgebel, or those sympathetic to his point, accept what I say here without supplementation? My argument proceeds by relying on a seemingly obvious intuitive point about a requirement of responsible inquiry. Of course, aiming as I do to inquire responsibly, I’m open to the possibility that I’m misled about this seemingly obvious point. But Schwitzgebel tells us that “careful empirical reflection on the source and trustworthiness” of this intuition is (now) in order. I’ve not done any of that. Have any of us?

It would be ironic if we were simply, or even mainly, relying on intuition when pronouncing that empirical work should take a central role in the methodology of our erstwhile largely a priori discipline. If we argue for this genetic turn based on that intuition, shouldn’t we be supplementing it with empirical work indicating when or under what circumstances the intuition that a genetic turn is advisable in discipline X is trustworthy?

Here’s the general question this raises to my mind: can a thoroughgoing geneticist consistently rely on intuition without backing it up with the relevant empirical work? (The consistency here is of course methodological, not logical.)

It seems to me that he cannot.

Maybe the appropriate response is to take a more nuanced genetic turn, embodied in the maxim: supplement intuition with empirical work wherever you can, but provisionally rely on intuition alone when you must.


Comments

The Genetic Turn — 7 Comments

  1. I don’t know this literature, but from the snippets I’ve seen it appears as though the empirically focused intuition-skeptics are talking about philosophical intuition across the board, and not merely in epistemology. Is that right?

    Contemporary metaphysics contains loads of intuition-based argument, but usually the content of the intuitions is something like ‘There are composite objects’, ‘There is nothing composed of all our noses’, ‘If you put two 100 lb objects on an accurate scale, the scale will read 200 lb’, or ‘Some material things exist for more than a second’. Is it in the cards that empirical research is going to tell us that we can’t rely on such intuitions? Or that such intuitions are present in just some cultures? How worried should I be?

  2. Bryan, yes, I’d say that this line of tought would in principle apply to intuition across the board. BTW, I don’t think they’re necessarily intuition skeptics. I assume they remain open to the possibility that the empirical work will vindicate intuition in this or that domain, or even for the most part across the board.

  3. I don’t understand why you take the claim that “responsible inquiry generally requires us to be open to evidence of our own defects” to be something that we need to defend with a bare intuition. It seems to me that we have oodles of evidence for such a claim from things like the history of successful (and unsuccessful) epistemic practices; our current account of the best epistemic practices in places like the sciences; and general practical considerations.

    The same will hold for at least some of the claims that Bryan mentioned — do we really need a special _intuition_ for the claim about the latter two claims you listed? Can’t they, rather, be argued for (if need be) on the basis of vast amounts of empirical evidence? The first two claims, however, I’m not sure I’d know how to argue for directly, so maybe they would indeed need to be defended, if at all, by an appeal to intuition.

    There also seems to me to be a subtle but important misreading of Eric’s claims here. Eric is saying we need to pay empirical attention to these questions of where our intuitions come from, and where they might be more or less reliable, etc.. But he doesn’t say, at least not in that post, that until such time as we have a completed inspection of these sources, that we can’t rely on intuitions. Indeed, that would seem flatly inconsistent with some of the claims in his text, such as his initial, “Philosophy is built upon intuitions. (Maybe all knowledge is, at root.)” You’re trying to read him as making a claim that’s something like: we currently possess undeafeted defeaters for our intuition-based knowledge claims, and until we can find scientific defeaters for those defeaters, the knowledge claims do not hold. But really it is better to interpret arguments like his as aimed not primarily at specific _claims_ to knowledge, but at our philosophical _practices_; and in particular, arguing that we need to start letting more empirical considerations into such practices in a deliberate, directed way.

  4. Jonathan,

    I did not say that we “need to” defend, by appeal to intuition, the claim about responsible inquiry. The intuition does seem sufficient in this case, though. Nevertheless, you might be right that we could bolster it by appealing to intellectual history.

    Your impression of a misreading might stem from the fact that I was asking about what would happen if we were “thoroughgoing” geneticists about intuition. I don’t think we can be, and I did not say that Eric insisted on this thoroughgoing methodology. (And I certainly didn’t interpret him as making a point about our “claims to knowledge.”)

    In any event, please understand the “nuanced” approach I mentioned in the last paragraph of my post as my official charitable interpretation, which seems to be in line with your suggestion.

  5. Regarding the first point, maybe you didn’t say so explicitly, but your argument absolutely requires your commitment to it. Indeed, this paragraph comes out simply irrelevant without it: “It would be ironic if we were simply, or even mainly, relying on intuition when pronouncing that empirical work should take a central role in the methodology of our erstwhile largely a priori discipline. If we argue for this genetic turn based on that intuition, shouldn’t we be supplementing it with empirical work indicating when or under what circumstances the intuition that a genetic turn is advisable in discipline X is trustworthy?” If we just don’t need any alleged such intuition here — and fwiw, I don’t find any such intuition in myself — then these become empty rhetorical questions. And it sure looks like they are meant to be presenting some sort of challenge to someone.

    As for the latter point, well, I guess you’ll have to tell me what you take “thoroughgoing geneticism” to be committed to, and what its relation is supposed to be to Eric’s text. It sure _sounds_ in your original post like you’re trying to argue with something in Eric’s text, and that your final “nuanced” view is meant as a _competitor_ to what he’s written. E.g., when you write, “Can Schwitzgebel, or those sympathetic to his point, accept what I say here without supplementation?”, it sure looks like you take yourself to be saying something that should make at least some prima facie trouble for him. (It looks like you mean the answer to that question to be “no”.) If that isn’t your view, then you may want to adjust the initial post to be clearer in that regard.

  6. Jonathan,

    As for the intended meaning of ‘thoroughgoing geneticism’, I meant it as the view that it is irresponsible to rely on any intuition that is unsupplemented by the relevant empirical reflection.

    Perhaps now it is clearer why my discussion featured the idea that the appeal to intuition was sufficient (not necessary, as you once again suggested). It’s only if the unsupplemented intuition is sufficient for proceeding responsibly that we get any sort of tension with thoroughgoing geneticism.

    As for how “thoroughgoing geneticism” relates to Eric’s text, it’s that reflecting on Eric’s post suggested the view to my mind. I don’t think he’s committed to it. Reflecting on his post also suggested the “nuanced” alternative to my mind. I don’t think he’s committed to that either. But I think the nuanced version of the genetic turn is definitely better.

    I’m not averse to “making prima facie trouble” for philosophical views, but I really didn’t see myself as causing trouble for anyone, or even trying to cause trouble for anyone, so much as exploring how far, and in what way, we might insist on the sort of empirical reflection Eric points to.

  7. Thanks for the interesting discussion, John! As I often find in these metaphilosophical blog discussions, Jonathan Weinberg anticipates what I want to say and says it better (if a litle more negatively) than I probably would have.

    I endorse your nuanced view. We’re in Neurath’s boat, right? On my liberal understanding of “intuitions”, we have to rely on intuitions all over the place to keep sailing. But that doesn’t prevent the responsible philosopher from being concerned about seaworthiness and rushing to check the planks as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

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